“What I want to know is: Who’s going to clean it up?” A friend of mine, a liberal in the broadest, nearly extinct sense of the word, was asking a simple question about the ongoing acts of vandalism committed over the past few months against timeless works of art in the name of climate-change protest. In the recent annals of TikTok radicalism—truly one of the most peculiar phenomena of our super-prosperous society—flinging mashed potatoes, tomato soup, and pea soup at artistic masterpieces, while gluing your hands to their frames, all in hopes of raising consciousness of climate change, has to be among the weirdest.
But my friend’s question went beyond the pointless vanity of such protests, to the heart of one of the most dramatic political opportunities of our time. Just as an awareness of class dynamics drove one successful modern political movement after another on the left, the same awareness might well help drive the next successful political movement on the right. My friend’s question might have been voiced by a group leader at any Communist meeting in the 1930s. With the necessary adjustments, it might have gone like this:
Comrades! The sons and daughters of bourgeois capitalists, after dividing us into groups based on race, gender, and sexuality and rendering us paralyzed to change our collective lot, have now invaded the sacred communal space of the museums, the one place where the revelations of art might uplift a poor person above his class. They are attempting to deface the very vehicles of upward class mobility! Imagine: the most recent climate-change vandalism was an attempt by two protesters, as a third filmed them—there is, Comrades, always the decadent lure of bourgeois fame in these “radical protests”—to glue their hands to the frame holding Edvard Munch’s The Scream, the greatest cry of protest against the self-imprisonment of the bourgeois ego ever created! Even as the victims of past colonialism continue to exist on the edge of starvation, these “protesters” throw precious food, enough to sustain whole families in Africa, at the creative products of geniuses who, by some dialectical miracle, rose above their class situation to expose our material reality. And who, Comrades, will clean up the mess they make in the museums? Why, the members of those very groups the new bourgeois radicals claim to be advocating for: people of color, immigrants and the poor.
Do conservatives wish to capture the imaginations of young people? Exposing the ludicrous sanctimony and killing hypocrisy of today’s so-called left-wing radicalism in the name of a new conservative radicalism is one way to do it. What America needs is a good, two-cent conservative theory of class.
The elephant, as it were, in the liberal and progressive room has always been the sociological spectacle of people who, for the most part, prescribe a morality for others that their wealth and privilege spare them the necessity of following themselves. I remember, years ago, telling a wealthy liberal friend that my wife and I had called an exterminator to come and rid us of the mice that were dropping from the wooden moldings beneath the ceiling onto the floor of the small Brooklyn apartment we were living in with our newborn son. “Exterminating them!” she cried. “That’s what the Nazis did to the Jews!” If a single rodent had poked its head into the living room of her Gramercy Park manse, she would have called in a SWAT team. Or simply gone out and bought another apartment.
One of the consequences of the so-called Reagan Democrats was to dissolve the bonds between the liberal elites and the white working class and white lower-middle class. Once the countercultural Left’s excesses moved the traditional foundation of the Democratic Party to the right, the party’s upper stratum turned with a vengeance on its former base. Once Ronald Reagan’s radical tax cuts—preceded by John F. Kennedy’s and accelerated later by Bill Clinton’s—spawned conditions that elevated them economically, liberal mandarins could sever themselves from a class of people against whom they, or their children, still had to compete, yet with whom they shared fewer and fewer public goods: housing, schools, community spaces, local businesses, civic commitment. That was when the white male went from a multidimensional social type to the quintessence of American evil. That was when everything that had held America together after the slow dissolution of its small towns—religion, stable identity, a simple love of country—became, in the eyes of liberal elites, un-American.
A conservative dialectical materialism, centered on class, might take some time to work out and would require finer historical and philosophical minds than my own. In the meantime, simple exposure will do. Liberals and progressives like to scour the private lives of their adversaries for any infraction that might discredit their stated principles. Occasionally, in the name of ideological purification, they devour their own. Generations of postmodern theory, which postulated that every person is a social construction, codified into popular practice such methods of personal deconstruction.
Conservatives might do well to expose, not a person’s moral foibles, but the material basis of someone’s inflated moral prescriptions. It is not sufficient to point out, as people have done, that one of the big funders of the climate-change vandals is Aileen Getty, heiress to the Getty oil fortune, who is clearly engaging in the time-honored patrician recreation of expiating guilt while accruing cultural prestige—not unlike her grandfather himself, though in her case, attempting to destroy artistic masterpieces rather than, as her grandfather did, buying them and housing them in museums. It is not enough to describe the plummy backgrounds of some of the movement’s prominent members. Conservatives need to make the connection between the protesters’ contempt for the sacred spaces that nourish the imaginations of children of the lower and middle classes and attempts by liberal elites to remove the competitive obstacle of the middle class altogether. What better way to do that than by destroying culture’s ability to illuminate and empower? This is not mere hypocrisy. It is class warfare.
Conservatives, unite and proclaim the dirty little secrets of class—from the liberal elites retiring to their Hamptons retreats, even as they thundered about lockdowns and quarantines for the hoi polloi, to the editors who humiliated a nominee to the Supreme Court with baseless accusations of sexual predation, even as they knew that they themselves had engaged in intra-office amours with subordinates. You have nothing to lose but your inability, so far, to shake the chains off the culture that liberals almost entirely possess.
Photo by Kristian Buus/In Pictures via Getty Images